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Songa Asks: Can Fashion be Sustainable?

Hult headshotWords by Hult Social Entrepreneurship
Investment & Markets

Sustainable fashion sounds like an oxymoron. Nevertheless, you may have heard the phrase recently in television advertisements, department stores, and on the runway. Is this the new face of fashion?

To answer this question, we must look at the events that have led the industry towards sustainability. We will profile Songa Designs, a company that has put sustainable fashion into practice. Lastly, we will leave you with some thoughts on where sustainable fashion is heading within the overall industry.

 “Nike Supports Women in its Ads but Not its Factories”

The above headline appeared in one of many New York Times articles in the late 90s regarding sweatshop conditions in Nike factories. Nike experienced over a decade of consistent growth in revenue before the poor labor conditions in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand hit newsstands. However, after $9.6 billion in revenue in 1998, Nike’s sales took a hit, dropping to $8.8 billion the following year. Forbes argued that boycotts and protests surrounding Nike’s labor exploitation of 400,000 Asian workers was among the reasons for the decline.  Apparently, Nike agreed, as they went on to spend $2 billion dollars a year on marketing to repair their reputation.

Fashion is a demand-driven industry. In this case, consumer awareness affected Nike’s sales. When consumers learned of Nike’s factory conditions, some of them, but not all, stopped buying Nike products. However, $1.2 billion in lost revenue is a good enough reason to move towards better and more ethical business practices. A decade later, Nike is due credit for their transparency and for their recent efforts to clean up their material supply chain.

Nike now asserts that sustainability is how they approach social responsibility. However, Nike was not the only corporation to make the move towards sustainability. As consumer expectations increase, so does the responsibility of fashion giants.

What is sustainable fashion?

Sustainable fashion, also called ethical fashion, combines social responsibility and environmental stewardship with the creation of positive impact. For example, workers are paid living wages and have a safe and healthy working environment. Sustainable fashion operates on the triple bottom line in which profits, social impact, and environmental impact are given equal consideration.

With corporate social responsibility set aside, how can sustainable fashion work in the world of international business? Let’s take a look at Songa Designs.

Songa Designs: The beauty of handmade

Songa Designs offers a fashion accessory line made in Rwanda. Local Rwandans run the core of the business and have from its inception. Their production model includes 150 individual artisans from women cooperatives, in which the women are all partners and have independent businesses. Through their growing network, it is possible to take advantage of benefits such as access to economies of scale and business expansion.

We had a chance to speak with Sarah Dunigan, the co-founder and CEO of Songa Designs. She emphasized that for-profit business was one avenue in which to make impact sustainable. Nonprofit initiatives may be able to create social impact as well, but relying on donations and grants make long-lasting sustainability difficult. As stated on their website and confirmed by Dunigan, “We believe that business can alleviate poverty. If done ethically, there is no confusion about the rules.”

They do not currently have a criterion to measure their social impact other than the number of women they employ.  In an effort to preserve their environmental impact, they source their materials locally, including the banana leaves and recycled steel seen in most of their designs. However, the change in the women’s standard of living is possible to observe in the day-to-day operations at Songa Designs: from simple changes like a new hairstyle, to significant achievements such as having the means to send their children to school, employees' station in life is improving. Someday they may be able to better measure these effects.

Currently, the accessories are sold in local markets, three retail stores in Rwanda, and online. Dunigan and her team are now strategizing to expand sales to U.S. as well. In order for Songa Designs to compete in the international market, creating a high quality product is important. The team invested over a year in training Rwandan women in standard quality control. They’ve also taught them new ways to use their design and handcraft skills, and the end result is an exclusive line of accessories shipped to customers all over the world.

Songa Designs has been operating for approximately two years now. Sarah Dunigan estimates that they will break even at the end of this year, and will continue to grow their social impact as sales improve.

Sustainable fashion: A brighter future?

We’ve seen how sustainable fashion can work through corporate social responsibility and through ethical fashion business practices. It raises the question of whether the fashion industry as a whole is becoming more sustainable? Or is it getting worse?

As mentioned before, fashion giants such as Nike and Puma have incorporated sustainability into their social responsibility. Other large retailers such as American Apparel and Levi Strauss have launched sustainable fashion lines while maintaining their traditional lines. H&M recently announced their Conscious Collection.

However, due to surging demand for fashion products, fashion names like Zara, Forever 21, and even the “conscious” H&M utilize “fast fashion,” in which cheap production and labor is used to deliver trends to consumers as soon as possible. While this fulfills consumers’ desire for novel and inexpensive clothing, it also perpetuates poor sustainability practices around the world.

Therefore, while some companies seem to be taking a step in the right direction, the fashion industry still has a long road to travel before reaching sustainability.


By Danielle Grant, Babangida Bafarawa, Claudia Vargas Prieto, Yoselin Gonzalez, Manikandan Sivasankar.   The authors are Master of Social Entrepreneurship candidates at Hult International Business School. 

[featured image credit: Dave Austria: Flickr cc]

Hult Social Entrepreneurship headshotHult Social Entrepreneurship

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